Wildfires Burn Homes, Close Freeways in Southern California

by | December 6, 2017

By Steve Rubenstein, Sophie Haigney, Peter Fimrite and Jill Tucker

Ferocious Santa Ana winds blew flames across bone-dry grasslands and into neighborhoods, leveling at least 180 structures and forcing tens of thousands to flee, while ensuring that the state's worst fire season on record would push well into the holidays.

The Thomas Fire, which broke out around 6:30 p.m. Monday in the foothills near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula and remained out of control on Tuesday night, swept west and devoured rows of homes, two apartment buildings and a private psychiatric hospital as it raced over grasslands into communities.

It was the worst of four fires that by late Tuesday had burned more than 66,000 acres in Southern California, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency in Ventura County as Bay Area fire departments sent reinforcements south.

"The prospects for containment are not good," said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen at a news conference. "Really, Mother Nature is going to decide."

As neighborhoods turned into scenes of vast ruin and freeways closed down, California got a frightening replay of the October infernos in Wine Country that killed 44 people, destroyed 8,900 structures and, like the Thomas Fire, were driven by nighttime windstorms that blasted flames from more rugged areas into communities built along the edge of the wildland.

By Tuesday morning, the Thomas Fire had burned into Ventura, a city of more than 105,000 residents located about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles on Highway 101. Vista del Mar Hospital, a private psychiatric facility, burned to the ground after its residents and workers were evacuated, as did 150 buildings, including the pair of apartment complexes.

More than 1,000 firefighters worked through the night protecting buildings, including City Hall, where the flames reached the parking lot, destroyed a couple of cars and left an adjacent hillside blackened and smoldering.

"It seemed like a lava flow coming down toward the city," said Vince Tovey, an electrical inspector for Ventura.

A firefighter was injured when he was struck by a vehicle during the response to the blaze, said the Ventura County Fire Department. Some 27,000 people were under mandatory evacuation in Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai, and at least 7,000 more homes were evacuated between Santa Paula and Ventura, a distance of more than 12 miles, officials said. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power.

In issuing his emergency proclamation to secure state and federal disaster resources, Brown cited the destruction, the threats to critical infrastructure and the high winds.

"This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we'll continue to attack it with all we've got," Brown said. "It's critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so."

Evacuee Lorie Denis, 56, stared at the devastation late Tuesday morning as firefighters poured water on the blackened hull of the Harbor View Apartments in the foothills above downtown Ventura.

She had been awakened by a neighbor's phone call and had time to grab a few possessions from a safe -- among them her late husband's wedding ring and watch -- as well as her dog, Carson. She tried to save her neighbor's two cats but could find only one before a neighbor screamed for her to leave.

"I thought we were done," she said. "It was raining fire."

Judy Terry, 69, was getting ready for bed Monday night when she got an alert as well as a phone call from her landlord telling her to leave. She got dressed, grabbed her dog, Sweetie, and corralled neighbors into her car for a drive through heavy smoke to the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

"All I had time to do was get up, get dressed and leave and help others," said Terry, who with more than 600 others spent the night on a Red Cross cot in what is normally a livestock center, with her Maltese-poodle mix pup by her side.

As the fire crept near Ventura's downtown, the wind howled and pieces of palm trees and tumbleweeds blew through the streets as thick brown smoke blanketed the region. Many people wore masks as they walked through the area.

Burning as well was the Creek Fire in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, which started at 3:42 a.m. Tuesday in the Angeles National Forest and spread to more than 11,000 acres. At least 30 homes in Sylmar and Lakeview Terrace were destroyed, thousands of others were evacuated, and two firefighters were injured.

The Little Mountain Fire broke out about 12:28 p.m. Tuesday on a hill behind a strip mall south of California State University San Bernardino, and spread to 100 acres by the afternoon. The fire injured two people, one critically, and forced closure of northbound Interstate 215, said Eric Sherwin, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The Rye Fire erupted just before 10 a.m. Tuesday about 30 miles northwest of Los Angeles, shutting down Interstate 5 in both directions near Santa Clarita. The fire broke out in the Rye Canyon Loop and grew to 5,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon. It was 5 percent contained, while the other fires had no containment.

Each of the fires was pushed by dry Santa Ana winds, with gusts up to 60 mph. The winds, which originate inland, are similar to the Diablo winds that fueled the wildfires in Northern California. Fire officials said the weather was making it difficult for aircraft and helicopters to fight the blazes.

"This is mirroring the Tubbs Fire we had to deal with in Northern California," said Scott McLean, a deputy chief for the state's Cal Fire agency. "We're dealing with extreme wind conditions and weather that is extremely dry and (difficult) topography. This is not flat land, and some areas are inaccessible to get equipment to."

The Santa Ana winds, which typically occur in the fall, could last as long as 10 days, forecasters said.

"They've died down slightly, but they're going to increase again (Tuesday) evening, so it's kind of like a seesaw," McLean said. "This just shows us that there is no fire season anymore. It's December. We have fires all year round now."

Firefighters in Southern California are used to clusters of wind-driven fires in the fall. In October 2003, Santa Ana winds fed the ruinous Cedar Fire in San Diego County, which consumed 2,820 structures, and the Old Fire, in San Bernardino County, which wiped out 1,003 buildings.

But fires spread by extreme offshore gusts are rare this time of year -- even in Southern California, which is typically warmer and drier during the winter than the rest of the state. Cal Fire anticipated the danger, maintaining staffing on 148 engines and keeping reserve firefighters on duty.

"We continue to see more and more extreme fires and extreme weather events," said Chief Ken Pimlott, the Cal Fire director. "The challenges of our changing climate are real. Historically, winter was a time we could regroup, but spending the holiday season on the fire lines is likely to become more the norm."

Ventura County has been exceedingly dry in recent months. The area has received 0.13 of an inch of rain since July 1, said the National Weather Service.

"We had rains last winter that caused all the brush and everything to grow, and throughout the summer they dried out," said Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Joey Marron. "Now with these winds, any little spark is fuel."

A San Francisco Fire Department strike team of 22 firefighters rushed to the Thomas Fire on five engines Tuesday. Fire crews from Marin and Alameda counties, Oakland, Fremont and Hayward were also being sent.

The winds continued to blow Tuesday as Tovey, the city of Ventura electrical inspector, patrolled the perimeter of the Thomas Fire in his city vehicle, turning back residents trying to reach their homes.

"One of the downsides living in California," he said of the wildfire danger. "There aren't many, but this is one of them."

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle